By Steve Keating
TORONTO (Reuters) - NHL teams looking to go on shopping sprees when the free agent market opens on Friday will find few marquee names available with Dallas Stars forward Brad Richards the only true luxury product on offer.
For general managers with rich tastes, Richards, a proven and reliable scorer backed up with a championship pedigree, is the one must-have item on the auction block but will command a lucrative offer.
The 31-year-old unrestricted free agent, who led Dallas in scoring last season with 28 goals and 77 points, earned close to $8 million last season and is believed to be seeking a long-term deal in the $50 million-$55 million range.
But any team hoping to land Richards must not only flash plenty of cash but also ambition since the center has made it clear he is interested in playing for a championship contender after missing the playoffs the last three seasons.
Richards won the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoffs most valuable player in 2004 when he helped the Tampa Bay Lightning win a Stanley Cup, but in four seasons with Dallas he has made it to the post-season only once.
"It's been too long since I had that chance to win the Stanley Cup," Richards said on NHL Live. "I kind of thought we'd have a couple more cracks at it by now.
"That will be the main focus."
Despite the steep price for the former third-round draft pick, there will be no shortage of suitors lining up to woo Richards with the New York Rangers, Toronto Maple Leafs and Philadelphia Flyers all prepared to make pitches.
After Richards, this year's crop of free agents has been described as "thin" but teams who have worked diligently to clear cap space will still find ways to spend their money.
The free agent market place was thinned out this week with the Washington Capitals re-signing forward Brooks Laich to a six-year, $27 million extension while the Vancouver Canucks struck a five-year, $23 million deal to keep defenceman Kevin Bieksa with the Stanley Cup runner-ups.
Teemu Selanne also becomes a free agent on July 1 and would be nice addition to any team but the Finnish sniper is expected to re-sign with the Anaheim Ducks if he decides to return for a 19th season.
Durable winger Andrew Brunette, who missed only two games the last eight seasons, has been a reliable point producer throughout his 15-year career and should attract interest after scoring 18 goals for the Minnesota Wild last season.
Carolina Hurricanes veteran forward Erik Cole, who had a solid season scoring 26 goals, and Tampa's Simon Gagne, a two-time 40-goal scorer, could also be targets for teams looking for some experience up front.
Hard-nosed winger Scottie Upshall, who scored a career-high 22 goals playing with Phoenix and Columbus last season, and Carolina's Jussi Jokinen, who followed up a 30-goal campaign with 19 last season, could also draw interest.
There is also quality available for team's looking to bolster their bluelines with puck-moving defenceman Tomas Kaberle, who helped the Boston Bruins win a Stanley Cup, poised to hit the open market along with two cornerstones of the Canucks defense Sami Salo and Christian Ehrhoff.
(Editing by Frank Pingue)